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Interview with Tom Heasley

img  Tobias
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi Tobias. Still here in Los Angeles, doing ok.


What’s on your schedule at the moment?

Some interesting things are afoot. I’m getting together soon with guitarist Peter Maunu (Mark Isham, Group 87) to experiment and see where it goes. I played with the Don Ellis Reunion Big Band last October and there’s talk of more of that this year. Of course, I am still promoting Passages, the first album on my new Full Bleed Music label. Toss Panos and I may do a few gigs here in LA. I have several more releases planned for Full Bleed, and would like to get into the studio for some new solo recordings before too long. I recently played (mostly didjeridu) on the Michael Roth (Randy Newman’s music director) soundtrack to ‘Your Name Here’, a film currently making the rounds at Sundance. I am also working on setting up a few solo dates on the east coast in the spring with and without Daniel Lentz, but there’s no money, you know?


We usually ask the classical artists participating in our “15 Questions” series whether they ever considered playing a different instrument and how good they were at it. Since your work is now so closely connected to the Tuba – how has that been for you?

My first musical love was the trumpet – started at age 10 - and I didn’t give it up by choice or without a fight. I was always the first trumpet player throughout my early school years. I was in the high school band while in junior high. The high notes didn’t come to me naturally, though. We moved to a different school system, and being the new guy in the band, rather than correct my trumpet problems, my new band director (and my new trumpet teacher, the head of the brass department at Youngstown State University – Dana School of Music) chose to direct me to the tuba. For a while, I was playing a sousaphone in the high school marching band while still playing 1st trumpet in the Youngstown Youth Symphony. Notwithstanding the range problems which could have been corrected, I was a pretty good trumpet player.

I am not sure where to begin with “how has it been for you” with the tuba. It has certainly sucked for years – decades, even - at a time! It’s been over 30 years of tuba now, and it took a long time to get to the point of making my first solo recording, Where the Earth Meets the Sky (2001). So, it has finally begun to be good for me. Notwithstanding a sip of water now and again, it has been like a very long walk through the desert without any relief…..finally having recordings out there that speak for themselves has dramatically changed things for the better.

Looking back for a quick minute, my professional career began in the early 70s. When I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles in 1980, I found it a little frustrating to be asked by every person I called, “And, what else do you play?” But, I eventually broke through and it was in ’83-84 that I had one of my better musical experiences, playing in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Unfortunately, we didn’t play many gigs and did not record at all. I moved to New York in 1985 in the hopes of playing such creative music more often. Instead, it was much less. The New York scene was so disillusioning musically that I ended up selling my horns less than two years later and moving back to California. I thought of giving up music. But, back on the west coast, Bobby Bradford heard that I didn’t have a horn. He retrieved a school horn from a student (at Pasadena City College where he taught for years) and gave it to me - Red Callender’s old horn.

After a brief time in LA, I moved up to San Francisco to be with Martina, now my wife. I played off and on in the Bay Area. There were some wonderful times when I would carry the horn out to Aquatic Park at night and play with the sea lions and fog horns. In due course, I became involved with the improv/new music scene in the Bay Area (Glenn Spearman, the Clubfoot Orchestra, Marco Eneidi, Oxbow, Eugene Chadbourne, Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra). I also did a fair amount of orchestral freelancing - especially after getting hit by a car allowed me to collect enough money to buy a better tuba.

Eventually, I managed to bruise enough egos and found myself blacklisted from that scene. After I was fired from a Mills College Fred Frith concert by some bitter musician - who also happened to be the chair of the music department - lies were spread about me and I could not book a gig in town if my life depended on it (which it did and still does). Bay Area people who didn’t even know me at all fell right in with the party line. Garth Powell - who attempted to book a duo gig for us in early 1998 - told me “You’re blacklisted, man! I’ve never seen so many people united against a single individual.” This, of course, was not at all just because I played the tuba, but you did ask how it’s been….


When did you first get in touch with the Tuba? What was the deciding moment that made you decide you wanted to play it?
During my last year of high school, the nearby university hired a new tuba teacher (the old one went to the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Hearing John Turk play his first Youngstown recital completely changed my mind about the tuba. I found a new love and there was no turning back.


I suspect that, just like many other students of an instrument, you started off with classical repertoire (correct me if I’m wrong). So how did the transition to using it as the primary source for your own music come about?
If by “classical”, you mean the classic, composed, band-instrument literature and band instrument methods, sure, I started off learning the trumpet via the usual American school band methods, orchestral excerpts, etc. Regarding the “transition”, it is a development that has taken my entire 40-something-year-long musical career. But of course, the tuba has been my “primary source” for 30 of those years, and was always intended to be a viable solo voice.


What were the initial reactions of audiences to “The Ambient Tuba”?
I played a concert at a little art gallery on Market Street in San Francisco in January 2001, a few months before recording my first album. That date was when the looping/ambient work really came together for the first time in public. And the audience reaction was very favorable. Since that time, audiences– and I’m talking a wide variety of audiences including those at clubs, conservatories and prisons - have always been very responsive and appreciative.


Has your composing technique changed over the years? Or was it a gradual process to arrive at the purity of a single Tuba and a looping device?

The fact that I am a composer came as sort of a surprise to me. Specifically, my second album could not have been more improvised. Yet, the American Composers Forum’s Innova label released it, promoting me as the composer. It was reviewed in Wire magazine not in the Improvisation, but in the Modern Composition, category. For seven or eight years now I have been composing in a way that took me over thirty years to develop. Electronics began entering the picture about 11 years ago. I was looking for something “more” in a solo context and the loop sampler really expanded my toolbox about 8 or 9 years ago. At this point, my composition technique continues to evolve and could go in “any” direction.


For lack of precedence in musical history: Is there music out there which directly influences your own work and provides you with new ideas when playing? You’ve mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Stern, but I’d be interested in which way other musicians and composers might actually play a part…
Stuart Dempster’s ‘In The Great Abbey Of Clement VI’ was a huge inspiration to me as a young brass player aspiring to be a soloist. A little later, Jon Hassell’s trumpet processing, Fripp & Eno’s ‘Evening Star’ and Budd & Eno’s “The Plateaux of Mirror” became vastly influential. But then so was Charlie Parker (I transcribed one of his solos and played it with the college jazz band) and Joni Mitchell and Yes and Chick Corea and Leonard Cohen and so many, many others over the years. Beginning around 1989 on into the early 90s I was quite taken by the first Deep Listening Band album. Seven years later, I very much enjoyed the initial experience of working with them in Oakland. It was right up there with the Charlie Haden experience and the best of my solo work.

Anything of high quality is right up there, regardless of genre or style..
 
Music has always been central to my innermost core and the music that I have loved the most at any given time has always inspired me, while also providing great pleasure. I would hope that my music would do the same for others.


In our last interview you stated that “my approach involves a large amount of trust and confidence in the fact that I can be a vessel for this music”. How did you gain that kind of confidence?

Many experiences over many years. I’ve always felt that there was an element of destiny to my musical work.


The purity of your lineup suggests that pieces may basically be evolving from very similar playing techniques and musical patterns each time. Would you agree? And if so: How do you keep things interesting for yourself?
To a degree, I would agree with your general idea. Yes, I quite often start with not just similar sounds, but the exact same sounds, in the same key. But, nothing I begin with is the same for long once it gets going in the looper. The sampler I use doesn’t just pile up tracks discreetly. It slices, dices, mixes, chops, purees and morphs what you put into it. Once I begin, my control of the result is limited somewhat. Composition using this technique is a very intuitive process. The richer the effect, the more interesting it is to me, period. When I play, I enter a world of sound and feeling. I try and let it take me where it seems to want to go. I can rarely win an argument with it over which way we will go.


Up until your most recent album, “Passages”, your work has been characterized by the pure lineup mentioned before. What made you decide to change that and engage in a dialogue with drummer Toss Panos?
As far as my own recorded output is concerned, it has all been entirely solo. My duos have included a few encounters with drummers, most notably Garth Powell and Gerry Hemingway in the Bay Area. As for working with Toss, while it didn’t really occur to me to meet him in a duo context, I definitely was interested in playing with him at some point. When I was ready to do some recording in Spring 2000, I phoned Toss about using his studio. He asked me if I wanted some drums. I said I hadn’t been thinking of it, but he talked me into giving it a try. Toss wrote me after the sessions and thanked me for bringing out an entirely different side of him. I think it worked out well for both of us.

Your music has an underlying pulse, but it is essentially rhythm less. Did you have to change your way of performing when playing in combination with a percussive instrument?
Well, sure. No matter what other instrumentalist(s) you are playing with, you have to listen and adjust. Not a lot of live overdubbing occurred during the recording of Passages - and none at all after the fact. I deliberately kept my tuba loops simpler, starker, and more rhythmic, sometimes setting up a framework for Toss’ drums, and sometimes vice versa. But I didn’t have to change much. I think our individual trajectories tended to parallel and contrast with – rather than mimic – each other.


The music on “Passages” has a very physical aspect and would certainly lend itself well for the concert situation. Do you see that happening any time soon?
Even my solo work is pretty visceral– especially live. I think that Toss and I will at least do something here in Los Angeles. Know any festival bookers?


Are there any plans to extend the sonic palette even more? Or to put it differently: When can we expect Tom Heasley in a band context?
As I said earlier, some interesting things are afoot. There are some very appealing possibilities, given some of the musicians that I have been meeting lately.


Many refer to your music as “Ambient”. With the leftfield combination of Tuba and Drums, do you sometimes consider it “punk” yourself?

Not really…..Once with the Liberation Music Orchestra 25 years ago, The Minutemen opened up for us. Maybe a little of their punk rubbed off.
 
By Tobias Fischer

Discography:
Where the Earth meets the Sky (Hypnos) 2001
On the Sensations of Tones - Ambient Tuba (Innova Recordings) 2002
Desert Trytptych (Farfield Records) 2005
Passages (Full Bleed Music) 2007

Homepage:
Tom Heasley

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